In last Sunday’s sermon, while discussing the very difficult Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, I put up a slide that drew a couple of questions from the congregation. The slide said that as Methodists we believe that it’s possible to lose our salvation, but that God always stands ready to forgive us and reconcile us back to himself.
A couple further comments: I realize it’s a bit optimistic to talk about “what Methodists believe,” because we often don’t know, in general, what we believe. We’re not a “confessional” church. The Wesleyan movement never defined itself in opposition to other Christian bodies. Wesley was himself a happy Anglican, for the most part. His problem with church was not orthodoxy but orthopraxy—how we live out our faith. He took for granted that we Methodists would stand squarely within the realm of orthodox Christianity as expressed by the Church of England.
Because of this legacy, we Methodists are known to be more laid-back, theologically, than many other parts of the universal Church. But this is not to say that theology isn’t important, or that we don’t have distinctive Wesleyan theological emphases.
One of these emphases is that we can fall from grace, even after we experience justification (forgiveness for sins) and rebirth (an inward spiritual change that enables us to live the Christian life). Salvation is a process that isn’t complete until the other side of death and resurrection, when we arrive safely in God’s kingdom. This is the point at which we are fully and finally saved. We may properly speak of “being saved” as a past event—because of what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection in the past—but, theologically, our salvation always points to a future event.
With this in mind, we Wesleyan Christians believe that through faith we “get on the bus,” which is surely headed to salvation, but we may choose through sin and unbelief to get off at any time. We are that free, Wesley believed.
We Methodists, in other words, don’t believe in a doctrine that’s often called “eternal security”—once saved, always saved. I wish we could believe in it, but not at the expense of being faithful to our best understanding of scripture. When we consider Jesus’ words in this parable, and especially Matthew 18:35, not to mention many other passages of scripture, the burden of proof, I would argue, lies with those Christians who believe in it.
Obviously, Wesley’s view was controversial among evangelical Protestants of his day. He sounds a polemical note in his commentary on v. 35:
And shall we still say, but when we are once freely and fully forgiven, our pardon can never be retracted? Verily, verily, I say unto you, So likewise will my heavenly Father do to you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
As I told a friend who struggled with the issue of eternal security versus falling from grace: It shouldn’t make much difference. It’s a good idea, even if we believe in the doctrine, to live as if we don’t! Right?